It's always interesting, as a reviewer, to come across a film that says more than it thinks it does; in particular, it's a curious thing to watch a film that has a message on one level that works at cross-purposes to its surface presentation. Such a film is Auntie Mame. Any readers who are devoted fans of the 1958 film might do well to skip down to the video and audio sections, because this reviewer simply was unable to take Auntie Mame at its intended face value.
The film opens with young orphan Patrick Dennis being delivered into the hands of his only living relative, the eccentric Mame Dennis (Rosalind Russell). The young boy soon finds himself caught up in a whirligig life with Mame and her lavish parties (and equally lavish spending). All is not entirely smooth sailing, as Mame has to contend with the highly conventional trustee of Patrick's own fortune, as well as trivial matters like the stock market crash and the Great Depression. But this is a comedy, so all is well in the end.
Based on a stage play, which in turn was based on a novel by Patrick Dennis, Auntie Mame has a highly theatrical feel to it, from the slightly overlarge gestures and well-projected voice of Mame and the other characters, to the "set-piece" feel of many of the scenes. In between "acts," the lights even come down until only Mame is illuminated, before going fully black. It's interesting that the one scene that actually takes place onstage, in Mame's abortive theatrical career, is one of the more dynamic in terms of camera movement and editing. With lavish use of color, countless fancy costumes, and some impressive sets for Mame's New York house, the film is visually quite impressive.
The film very evidently sets out to make Mame the star of the film, a character whom we're intended to love, just as all the other characters in the film adore her. Nonetheless, I ended up disliking her intensely. Mame is presented superficially as a "free thinker" who does things her own way and enjoys life on her own terms. All well and good... but underneath the trappings of cheerful independence, Mame is little more than a compendium of tired old stereotypes about women. (The fact that in 1958 these stereotypes might have been in more regular circulation doesn't mitigate their effect on a modern viewer.) The only things that Mame is good at are shopping and being the hostess of cocktail parties; when it comes time to actually get a job and do productive work, she's utterly helpless, leaving her to view marriage to a wealthy man as her only option. But of course – who would expect a woman to be organized and competent in the workplace? And when a prospective husband is in her sights, Mame becomes the epitome of the fortune-hunting woman, willing to lie through her teeth to ensure her connection to a big bank account. Yet Mame has also been saddled with the stereotypical virtues of womanhood: she instantly takes to motherhood, and after seeing young Patrick Dennis for only a single day, she's overcome by her maternal instincts, which she evidently possesses in abundance.
The message sent by Auntie Mame is a ghastly one, once past the frenetic cheerfulness of the presentation. Money is necessary for happiness in Mame's world, and the primary way in which the characters express their affection for one another is through buying gifts. When the unemployed Mame comes home and finds Patrick waiting for her with Christmas cheerfulness, the painting he did for decoration barely elicits a smile, but his present of a bracelet, for which he pawned some of his possessions to buy, moves her to tears of joy. It's clearly not just the thought that counts.
What does Mame's character tell us? That despite superficial differences in personality, women are all alike at heart: unable to survive on their own without a husband/bank-account, thoughtless of the future, excellent at socializing and mothering, fascinated by clothes and jewelry. For all Mame's globe-trotting and her high-society friends, we don't actually get much of a sense that she's an educated woman: she's all style, no substance.
Viewers who are fond of Auntie Mame might very well argue that I'm missing the point, that Auntie Mame is celebratory, that it's all about enjoying the fruits of life. As Mame herself says, "Life's a banquet, and most poor suckers are starving to death!" Aren't we supposed to see Mame as the embodiment of "carpe diem," joyfully getting the most out of life? Well, we probably are; but for this reviewer, the subtext of the film overpowers the intended effect. Mame may very well be enjoying life's banquet, but she also has clearly been given a privileged position; the film gives us no opportunity to see what she makes of a life in which, like most "poor suckers," she has to work for a living and face problems that can't be solved with a smile and wave of the hand.
I wouldn't have as much of an issue with Auntie Mame if there were more of an actual storyline to the film. However, it's clear that we're simply following her through a portion of her life, without a larger narrative structure. From the opening scene to about midpoint in the film, we see Mame through an assortment of events in her life, including some mild setbacks that she overcomes; then, the second half of the film essentially repeats the first half. There are new characters and events, to be sure, but nothing of substance changes; it's simply a new parade of costumes, lavish decorating, and posturing actors.
And that, in the end, is perhaps why Auntie Mame fails to work for me. The film is about her, yet she never truly appears as a human being. She does not grow or change over the course of the film: she may have what she wants, or not, but her personality and character are the same in any case. When the end credits roll, do we know anything more about her than we couldn't have figured out in the first fifteen minutes of the film? Has she changed or grown as a result of the events portrayed in the film? Did I care about her? The answer in all three cases is the same: no. Without a sense of sympathy for her, or at least a sense that she was a three-dimensional character, the film's cheeriness seems forced and its comedy feels hollow.
Auntie Mame is presented in an anamorphic 2.35:1 widescreen transfer, preserving the film's original aspect ratio. Warner has produced a DVD with generally very pleasing image quality; the one main problem is the fairly heavy use of edge enhancement in the film. Without the edge enhancement, the image overall would look considerably better.
Apart from this, Auntie Mame is in good shape. It's a highly colorful film, and the transfer manages to keep even the most oversaturated oranges and reds clean, with no bleeding of colors at all. Skin tones and the more subtle colors in the film are natural-looking. For the most part, the print is free of noise or print flaws; the only time I noticed any of these was in a few panoramic shots when Mame is traveling; I wouldn't be surprised if these came from "stock" footage and were in worse condition to start with. From looking at the trailer, it is evident that the overall film was extensively cleaned up for the DVD transfer; the murky tint and large quantity of scratches that show up in the trailer are completely absent from the finished feature on DVD.
The Dolby 2.0 mono track for Auntie Mame does a good job of keeping up with Mame's incessant dialogue, which comes across clearly along with that of the other characters. The overall sound is quite clean and clear; in fact, it even captures the slight echo in Mame's scene on the Matterhorn, rather amusingly reminding us that it was filmed in an enclosed studio set. Given the dialogue-focused nature of the film, there's not much more that a surround track would have offered.
The DVD of Auntie Mame has a few minor special features. There's a music-only audio track for fans of Bronislaw Kaper's score, and trailers for both Auntie Mame and Mame, the 1974 rendition of the film. A filmography section gives information for a limited number of the cast and crew; there's also a listing of the several awards given to Auntie Mame.
Auntie Mame has been a popular production over the years; though it missed the mark for me, viewers who tend to like this genre of light comedy in the lavish production style of the 1950s and 1960s may want to check this DVD out as a rental. The DVD transfer is quite good overall, so those who already know that they like the film should feel confident about picking up a copy on DVD.